Nature Deficit Disorder, a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in The Woods, is used to describe the impact that urbanisation along with the technological era has had, in reducing the time children are having in nature, nearby nature. It is rare for children in the 21st century to have childhood memories of playing down the end of the street making go carts, tree houses, and playing till the stars came out, getting lost in make believe games that used nature, both human nature and the more-than-human-world of nature. Even in my children’s time born in the 80’s and 90’s in the 20th century, there would be little memories that urban children could have of time playing in an unstructured, untamed world. The impact, Richard Louv states, is that the Nature Principle,(another book he wrote),is missing in the psyche of people in this era of civilization. Does this matter? Well many people see it does, in ways that have yet not been researched and longitudinal studies not yet thought through.
There is however a body of scientific literature known as Nature Therapy or Forest Therapy, that is growing throughout the world from academic disciplines such as psychology, urban design, town planning, and biology. In fact there is now a profession dedicated to bringing people back to their nature senses that are dulled in the man-made world, and with time and invitations the innate human senses can be brought to conscious awareness and developed in nature therapy. Nature Forest Therapy is a certified professional group being trained throughout the world. They are trained in guiding people towards nature connection, the nature that binds us all together as beings in this world, our earth.
Children require a different kind of engagement than adults in order to be immersed and benefit from nature forest therapy. It is not so easy for children to sit for long periods of time, silent and in contemplation. For children to immerse themselves it is so much easier if it is done with fun, laughter and exuberance. I would like to share with you a two hour nature forest guided walk I did with three children all around 7 years old. Two girls, Nissia and Eliya and a boy Gershon, came with me to a nearby park. A park that dipped into a valley, where there were wild ferns and trees at the edges and between patches of grass and dirt grew bamboo bushes, and old, very old tall trees standing like soldiers guarding the park.
This reserve is hidden behind a man-made park, the usual play equipment that urban environments have created for children’s outdoor play. This was the drop off and pick up point, though our time was going to immerse ourselves down in the valley that stretched behind and beyond the human architecture.
In order to create safety and a sense of connecting us all together, we stood in a circle and I asked them to run away and when I play the flute to see how well they could come back to the circle. It was wonderful to see the joy in running away and running back, the sense of freedom in movement and belonging to a place. That started our adventure. We walked down the path to the valley of earth and trees slowly like turtles, noticing what was along the path. I felt called to turn at one point, and there on the other side of the path was a lemon tea tree, a tree I have formed a relationship with, not in this park but in another. It is amazing how the family of trees are connected not just to each other, but also with others who have created an appreciative relationship. I stopped and rubbed the leaves with my fingers, the smell of tea tree, lemon tea tree, clean and clear. The children came close to get a smell. Smiles all round.
Once at the foot at the valley we played chicken and fox. The boy amongst us said, ‘I will be the fox and you be the chicken,’ he went straight for me, knowing that my legs though longer, are much slower than the others. It started the giggling, the running, the turning, and the joyful surrender to youth. As time passed, Gershon stopped playing and stood still, ‘Look, there is a turkey” Yes, there in the park in the most built up suburb in Sydney, Bondi, was a bush turkey. The turkey was doing a dance. For us this was an opportunity for siting still, and being quiet and just noticing. What a gift. Slowly we inched forward to get a closer look, the turkey turned looked at us, moved a few feet, his turkey feet walking away, then turned and came back to the leaves he was moving.
As time drew on there appeared many edges with the children, being able to sit and watch the turkey was difficult, taking turns listening to one of us talk, was very hard, and then when it was time to talk from the heart, that also was challenging and new.
From hide and seek, to rolling down the hill, to catching a song/tune in the reserve, we moved closer and closer to discovering our strengths of courage. The capacity of stillness in hiding, the sense of loneliness in seeking, and the sense of joy in discovering and finding were interspersed with flute calling and turn taking in reflecting on our experiences.
The rolling down the hill was an example of how the children supported each other in advising how and where to roll, stretching their boundaries, in embracing challenges, such as getting close to dirt, being on the ground with sticks and stones and feeling probed and unbalanced. By the third time, one of the children was able to roll down the hill, and enjoy it. A breakthrough.
There are so many different areas in this reserve it was a wonderful place to imagine we were in a village, our village and we all had homes. Each one of us was invited to discover our place in this village, our home, and what rooms we had, and when the flute called us together we could take turns in hosting, inviting us to their home and being shown around. How much fun was that? The laughter, the glee, the level of imagination we were all called in sharing. When it came to me, I took them further into the untamed space, past the turkey. One of the children asked, “Is the turkey in your home.” “ Oh that isn’t a turkey, that is my husband, Mr Turk, he is doing the gardening, please come into my home.” Well we laughed and laughed. Such fun.
As my house only had two rooms, a remark was made of how small it was, so I told them there was an attic. Do you want to go up to the attic? It is a mystery what is up there, I rarely go, and I don’t want to climb the stairs, do you want to go.?” I asked, “ Oh yes,” came the response, so I guided them to a pathway climbing up the reserve, and told them to bring back a discovery, a treasure when the flute invites them back to our circle.
Meanwhile I found a tree whose root system was a perfect place to sit and make tea. Tea that was made from plumeria flowers, from my garden.
That was the end of our fun in nature.
It was interesting to note what happened as the children returned to the man-made environment; the park playground quickly lured them into their space. The more-than-human world of the reserve required careful walking so as not to slip or walk into a spiders web, it required careful choosing, where to go, what to sit on, what to touch. The playground equipment required no such attention, all safe, no risk, all familiar. Nature Deficit Disorder, as Richard Louv calls it, does impact on how we develop, which parts of us are strengthened and accessed and which parts of us may lie dormant unnoticed.
The beauty of children includes the capacity to see growth changes within a short time. We spent two hours in the reserve. In this time, we saw each other’s hearts come out into the light, we saw movement from I can’t to I can, from no to yes, from limited capacity to stretching the boundary.
In a report titled, Closing the Achievement Gap, using the environment as an integrating context for learning. Gerald Leiberman and Linda Hoody from The State Education and Environment Roundtable in the USA, report on a study that looked at 40 programs operating around the USA that used the environment as a focus for learning. They were not specifically looking at environmental awareness or learning, but more “typically employ the environment as a comprehensive focus and framework for learning in all areas: general and disciplinary knowledge; thinking and problem-solving skills, and basic life skills, such as cooperation and interpersonal communications.”
“The positive effects of using the environment as the context for learning reach beyond students to encompass teachers as well. Teacher interest and engagement are important because enthusiastic teachers help students become more enthusiastic. Educators at all 40 study schools described consistent and significant growth in their enthusiasm and commitment to teaching after their school implemented an EIC program. (Environment as the Integrating Context) Many of the over 250 educators who participated in the study consider their EIC endeavors the highlight of their career.”
 Gerald Leiberman and Linda Hoody Closing the Achiement Gap: Unsing the environment as an intergrating context for learning 1998 http://www.seer.org/extras/execsum.pdf
 Leiberman and Hoody Ibid.